Calculating Losses: How to Close a High School Library for Summer Vacation
Jess deCourcy Hinds on Taking Stock of More Than Just Books
Walk through the empty, echoing hallways with hunter green locker doors hanging open like weary wings. Find one solitary pink-haired girl at a library table, reading Agatha Christie. “I didn’t know what else to do.” She was supposed to be in Poland now, helping rescue a cousin from Ukraine. But her mom decided to travel alone, so she is starting her summer here. “Can I help you out?”
Tell your student that closing the library is about calculating our losses from the year.
Facing up to our forgetfulness and flaws: the coffee and chocolate stains, the books left on the subway. Some librarians get disheartened this time of year, angry or desperate. My colleagues share stories of stalking their patrons through email and phone calls, and withholding diplomas, awards or pizza. Chasing students down hallways. Sometimes students will pop out of a restroom stall and hand you a library book while you’re washing your hands. You have to take the book then (after drying hands) because it might be your only chance.
Tell your student, when she asks, that 127 books never came home. When she gasps in horror say, “They can be replaced. We’ll try harder next year.”
Peel the already-faded student artwork and posters off the wall. Feel the whole school year fall away like dried skin.
Ask for help weeding the biographies to make room for hundreds of new books. Explain that biographies are the most underutilized genre. Students struggle to make time for pleasure reading more than ever since the pandemic, and we have to grab their interest with something more compelling than a 400-page tome on George Washington or Charlie Chaplin. We have digital databases if we want to research those people. Our students have high standards; most lives aren’t meaningful enough to deserve more than a Wikipedia entry. “Three biographies on Elvis?” Beep, beep, beep, delete, delete, delete! Chuck into a box for Goodwill.
Say yes to Alisa Garza, Greta Thunberg, Amanda Gorman. Yes to the young. No to all of the Founding Fathers, and the Beatles—but feel a pang about the Beatles.
Spray and wipe down the shelves. Slide all the books one shelf over, making room for new books. Check a text from your partner: “Sounds like the abortion ruling may come out today.” Shove another stack of books to the side, and check your phone to learn about expanded gun rights.
Talk to the pink-haired girl about her future, and hear the optimism and confidence in her voice. After twenty years of working in education, you have a sense of which children were wanted. You sit in rooms with hundreds of them for decades and you absorb worlds of pain and suffering. You just breathe and feel lighter when talking to a child who was desired, loved, and cared for every day of their lives. What will it be like teaching without Roe?
Look at the missing list. Should we do one more round of phone calls home? Consult your colleague Ms. W. for advice; she’s a veteran librarian with 30 years’ experience in DC public schools. “There’s nothing you can do,” says Ms. W. “You’ll never get them back. You go through the catalog and you mark them ‘lost,’ ‘lost,’ ‘lost.’ Just mark them all ‘lost.’”
Wonder how your fourth grader’s day is going. NYC schools do not close until June 27, and your daughter is sick of parties, awards, presents, ice cream and long goodbyes, and she wants to stay home. I push her to attend one more function. Nineteen fourth graders in Texas never got to clean lockers or have a class party or walk out the door and shout, “Have a great summer!”
Replace the biography section with a Mosaic book collection courtesy of the NYC Department of Education. A thousand brand new, shiny young adult books about diverse and queer characters, many of which are banned elsewhere in the country. Book club collections, twenty copies of each. Books to read with friends. The books arrived unannounced, 1,500 paperbacks with their new book smell, a pyramid of boxes, a fort protecting us from the world.
Marvel at how YA books are so much better since the 1970s and ‘80s, even though Judy Blume and How to Eat Fried Worms were good. But all of those books were all white and straight with beige and gray covers. Today’s books contain the whole world, and are bold magenta and orange, blazing the shelves. The covers are framable art. Live here between these bookcases vibrating with voices.
Ask yourself if this year was the hardest school year teachers have ever faced, or was that last year? Or 2020?
Ask how a teacher can love another person’s child, can mourn a whole class of children.
Ask how we can continue to teach in a world where human lives aren’t valued.
Say a long goodbye to the student with her bag of mysteries. Shut off the lights, lock the door. Wonder how you will arm yourself with enough hope to begin again in September.